Thursday, August 7, 2008


Well, I’m back from my vacation. It was the first two-week vacation that I’ve ever taken as an adult. I have to say, I am addicted (now that I am about to change jobs, start over with 0 days on the books, and earn three fewer days per year…). The decision to switch to one two-week vacation to visit our families was based on frugality and common sense. It is expensive to travel with a toddler, and can be painful. So why would you fly twice as often, for twice as much money, and take a two-year old across 3-time zones twice…when you don’t have to. In any event, it was very very relaxing. I hadn’t realized how much stress is relieved when you’ve been on vacation for 5 days and still have a week to go. So every two years, we are going to make the same trip.

I'm writing about gardening because my mother has a garden, and in one short morning we picked 12.5 lbs of green beans. The day we arrived, they were just tiny, and only 4 days later, they were ready (lot of rain in the northeast). My hamstrings were crying.

Gardening can be very much a part of the frugal-healthy-simple lifestyle.

Frugal: There is some startup cost associated. You may have awesome topsoil and good rain, and only need some seeds. We have sandy soil and have to purchase or build containers and buy soil. Others might need to rent space in a community garden. The water bill might be an issue also.

Healthy: Well, there’s nothing healthier than home grown fresh vegetables. Especially organic. At least you know where they come from. And you get exercise to boot! To those doubters.

Simple: This is debatable and depends on your definition of “simple”. To some, growing your own, canning, freezing, etc. is the essence of simplicity. To others, going to a store, farmer’s market, or farm and buying weekly are more simple.

In my opinion, having a skill that allows you to be self-sufficient is a good thing. Certainly I could probably make more money working an extra 1-3 hours a week than by gardening, but if ever the stores run dry, I can still feed my family.

I am an absolutely newbie to gardening. We did have a large garden growing up, but that was when I was a kid, up to age 15. More than 20 years have passed, so I can't claim any good garden knowledge. Therefore, this post is more of a "where to go to find good information".

Getting started: start small. Last year, we started with a few tomato plants in pots (started from tomato plants), and a few green beans in pots (started from seeds). We got probably all of 1 to 2 lbs of beans from our 4 or 5 plants. The tomatoes were a little more generous, at least until our then 18-month old discovered he liked picking the green ones. I learned that if your tomatoes are black on the bottom and on the inside, it means they have blossom end rot, related to a lack of calcium. This is common when you grow in pots, and you need to be more consistent with watering.

Square foot gardening: This was our big plan for the year. There’s a great book called…you guessed it “Square Foot Gardening” by Mel Bartholomew that shows you how to grow an amazing amount of produce in a small plot. Unfortunately, our backyard project took two months longer than we expected (well, maybe 4 months), and we were not able to put down our plants this year. Fortunately, we live in Southern California. So while tomato planting season is past, other things are coming for the winter.

The basic idea calls for building a 4’x4’ square, filling it with a special mixture of soil specified in the book, dividing the square into 16 1’x1’ grids, and planting the vegetables, fruits, or flowers in each square in varying densities depending on the needs of the particular plant. The author discovered that vegetables can be planted more densely than originally though, and more densely than recommended in standard “row gardening”. Square foot gardening is much more efficient from a space standpoint, which is a bonus for anyone with a small front and/or backyard, or even a sunny patio. The author is pretty funny, and notes that his book is easier for the novice than the expert. Apparently the experts don’t get how easy it really is.

Composting: This is another helpful thing that is on my to-do list. The most frugal thing is to make your own pile. Our tiered patio/grass/mulch backyard is not conducive to this, so we will likely keep our eyes out for an aerobic compost bin. Why compost?

Our house, actually, came with an anaerobic compost bin. It looks like the city was really trying to get people to compost about 10-20 years ago. I don’t believe the previous owner ever used it. For a description of the differences between aerobic and anaerobic composting

I basically decided that I’d rather have an aerobic composter.

The frugal aspect: There can be some startup costs associated with container gardening. Building the wooden planter boxes, buying pots. Here are some ideas to lessen the pain:

For herbs, use small pots (especially for mint, it’s a weed!) You can buy herbs already started in small pots. You can look for small pots from freecycle, craigslist, garage sales, your neighbors, friends. You can even try using milk jugs with the tops taken off (these make good seed starters too). If necessary, you can get end-of-season sales.

For larger items such as potatoes, 5-gallon buckets are a good option.

Seeds: I found mine on sale for 50% off. Most packets were 50 to 75 cents.

Soil: If you have bad soil, you will have to purchase some. But making your own compost will help you renew it year to year.

“Putting Up” the excess:

Canning: The Ball Blue Book

The gardening plan is definitely a work in progress. As I get my square foot gardening going, I will let you know how it goes. For now, the CSA is my friend!

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